The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘I’m not drinking right now.’ You don’t need to have a problem to take a break.

(Isip Xin for The Washington Post)

It’s St. Patrick’s Day 2019. I walk into a small downtown bar in Salt Lake City to meet my friend Tessa for a drink. Elbowing our way through the crowd, she steps up to the bar and orders a Guinness. I order a sparkling water with lime. The bartender looks at me sideways and says, “You know it’s St. Patrick’s Day, right?” I grin and say, “That’s what the lime is for.”

I may have been the only person in that bar not drinking, but I enjoyed the night just as much, and woke up early the next morning with no hangover, fatigue or regrets. Today, as we roll into 2022, I’m still not drinking — and it’s probably not what you think.

Hi, my name is Melissa, and I’m not an alcoholic. (In case you know my story already, I am a recovering drug addict, but my use never included alcohol.) I’ve never had a problem with alcohol, or even questioned whether I had a problem with alcohol. I didn’t drink to excess, I never drank at home, and I didn’t consume regularly. I was a casual drinker in every aspect — and still, I found myself questioning my relationship with alcohol.

It’s not just me; millions of people are getting curious about sobriety.

Although the early days of the pandemic prompted spikes in alcohol sales, the past few years have also brought an increased demand for beverages with low or no alcohol. More people are mentioning “nonalcoholic beverages”on social media, doing searches for “benefits of quitting drinking” and ordering craft mocktails. In August, Gallup found that 60 percent of U.S. adults reported drinking alcoholic beverages, down from 65 percent in 2019 and on the low end of rates reported over the past two decades.

More and more people are starting to look at the role alcohol plays in our lives and ask, “Is this still serving me?” And many of us are taking a good, hard look and saying, “Not really, no.”

As the co-founder of the Whole30 program, I’m no stranger to abstinence. The program, first established in 2009, is a 30-day reset for your health, habits and relationship with food — all of which includes alcohol, too. The elimination portion requires that you abstain completely for 30 straight days — often in January or September, which have become the most popular months — and during reintroduction, pay close attention to the effect alcohol has on your energy, sleep, cravings, mood, health conditions and more.

I’ve given up alcohol for a month as part of my a Whole30 many times over the past 12 years, and in pre-Whole30 days, once abstained for a year as part of my fitness goals. In between, I was a casual drinker when out with friends, traveling for business or having dinner at my parents’ house. But in September 2018, all of that changed with my “I’m not drinking right now” experiment.

One night on the couch with my now-husband, I questioned out loud whether I even needed alcohol in my life any more. I rarely drank at that point, and when I did, I enjoyed it less than I used to.

“Why don’t you take some time off?” he suggested. I immediately agreed, deciding I wouldn’t drink that month along with the rest of the September Whole30’ers.

As the month rolled on, I felt fantastic. My sleep improved, I had more energy for the gym in the morning, I got through an entire two-week book tour without getting sick (a first), and I felt more confident in social settings, having realized that even a little alcohol often made me distracted and self-conscious. I still socialized, still went out for “drinks,” still traveled for business and dined with my parents, but I was BYO LaCroix and zero-proof cocktails all month long, citing my Whole30-esque commitment.

About mid-October, I realized that technically my experiment was over — I was so happy with how things were going I didn’t even notice.

I really didn’t want to go back to drinking, but I wasn’t ready to say I’d never drink again. So I adopted the phrase, “I’m not drinking right now,” without defining how long “right now” was. I wondered if friends and colleagues would give me a hard time now that I didn’t have a 30-day commitment to fall back on.

It turns out, all I needed in social settings were those two little words: “right now.”

One of the biggest challenges to maintaining any health commitment is the social pressure, and the pressure around alcohol is intense. (I’ve heard it said that alcohol is the only drug we have to justify not using.)

Walking up to a bar and ordering a sparkling water is like holding a mirror up to your friends’ own behaviors and relationships with alcohol. They can get defensive, angry or confrontational without you saying a word about your choices (or theirs) and often attempt to make themselves feel better by mocking you, pressuring you to change your mind, or embarrassing you with taunts of “you’re no fun.” There are a few different ways to navigate this, and most of them don’t work very well.

Let’s rate your options on an effectiveness scale of 1 to 10. (Yes, I made this up, but I have over a decade of experience here, and it’s accurate.)

●Make excuses about why you’re not drinking, like you’re on medication or you’re driving: 4/10. Making excuses instead of owning your boundaries weakens your confidence and leaves you wide open to pressure to have just one and call an Uber.

●Fake drinking, like ordering a sparkling water with lime and pretending it’s a vodka tonic: 2/10. Please don’t do this — you’ll feel like a self-conscious impostor all night, and the risk of getting caught and having to explain yourself twice-over (or drink a real vodka soda you don’t want) is too great.

●Start off aggressive, like “I gave up drinking, so what?”: 3/10. This tactic is far more likely to make the other person defensive and hostile — a reaction you may not be prepared to handle, and one that can sour the whole night.

●My 9/10 choice (because no option is universally perfect) is to casually say, “I’m not drinking right now.” This simple but powerful statement immediately conveys two things — this is a conscientious choice you’ve made, so you’re confident in that decision; and it’s not necessarily forever, so there’s no judgment implied.

For me, it worked like magic to reduce defensiveness, challenges and peer pressure from friends, family and co-workers. Most people just accepted it, no questions asked. By not volunteering details, perhaps they got the idea that I didn’t want to get into it — fine by me.

Occasionally, someone would say, “Oh, interesting. Why?” I could have explained more, but most often (as they stood there with their drink in hand) I’d just say, “It’s just something I’m testing out,” and change the subject. It worked every time, and no one ever questioned how long “right now” was.

Perhaps the most surprising part, however, was the impact those two little words had on my self-awareness and self-confidence.

My owning my boundaries and saying “I’m not drinking right now,” my body resonated with the truth in that statement. I found myself standing up straighter, employing more eye contact and smiling as I said it. It helped me remember that socializing is about the connection and time spent with family or friends, not what’s in my glass.

Publicly proclaiming my sober status helped to normalize not drinking for others who are sober-curious or in recovery — something more than a few people quietly thanked me for later. And adding “right now” kept me in the present, reminding me to ask, “Is it worth it, and do I even want it?” every time I was presented with the wine menu.

It’s been over three years for me, and I don’t miss alcohol one bit — but I sure do love the benefits my zero-proof lifestyle have brought me. And discovering the power in that one special phrase eased my transition from casual drinker to mostly sober in an incredibly powerful way.

I can’t tell you what your relationship with alcohol should be, or whether a self-experiment like mine would serve you. But if you’re at all curious what a life (or month) without alcohol could do for you, I know exactly where you can start.

I’m not drinking right now.